The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

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Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.

Lifting – a day in the life

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Yesterday I was reminded, repeatedly, about the value of keeping an open mind.  Last night I went to the big Globo gym near my work.  My programming called for bench press, safety bar squats (as my rotator cuff is still very much an issue) and accessory exercises.  However, the globo gym does not have specialty bars of any sort…and to me the leg press machine is only slightly less ridiculous than the Smith machine.  So, while they are not analogous, I opted for deadlifts instead.

A secondary complication was that I, once again, forgot my chalk.  Past a certain weight, chalk-less deadlifts suck.  Your hands get ripped to shreds and the grip issues mess with your form.  A buddy of mine lent me his Oly lifting straps last week so I decided to give them an honest try.  I tried lifting with straps, once, about 2 years ago.  I used them for about 5 minutes and then gave it up as being “too complicated”. Besides, real men don’t use straps, right? Did I mention that my deadlift is, at the best of times, straight-up pathetic?

I took a good 10 minutes to really figure out how to use the straps correctly.  Then I gingerly tried 1 rep at about 80%.  Wow – lifting straps, where have you been all my life?  Due to my only recently healed hamstring I’m coming off a 9 week deadlift hiatus so I’m fairly de-trained.  And, yet, I began to rep out weights close to my former “strapless” 1RM.  So the good news is I am really stronger than my lousy deadlift numbers would imply and strapped deadlifts are probably the best way of getting me of the plateau I’ve been on.  The bad news is I realized just how weak my grip is and that it’s a major sticking point.  If I didn’t compete, I wouldn’t care, but I’ll have to find a way to build my grip strength pronto.  Farmers carries, anyone?

Anyway, fresh from my awesome discovery regarding straps, I headed to the bench press area to do some very low weight, low volume deload sets.  So I start benching with the bar and I notice, hmm, this feels great.  No fatigue, no soreness and, you ever have those days when you’re just stronger than usual? It was one of those days.  Nevertheless, I reminded myself, I’m in a deload phase and next week’s programming is a killer.  Just as I was about to give into common sense, “K”, one of the trainers, installed herself and a client on a bench adjacent.  K is eastern european, non-surgically enhanced drop dead gorgeous and all around nice.  Amazing genetics refined by hard work in the gym – she’d give Elton John second thoughts about his life choices.  So, full transparency, I stayed on the bench and started to add weight.  Not because I am a creeper, nor was I was I “ogling” (not my style) and, no, it wasn’t some lame attempt to impress.  For one, women couldn’t care less about how much you can lift and, besides, she goes out with a guy I know.  Rather, and I know this sounds weird, I’ve noticed that I can usually lift a little more when attractive women are in the vicinity.  I think it’s probably universal for guys, must be some sort of evolutionary trait.

Anyway, I started making 20kg jumps after each set of 3…as I was getting towards more serious weight one of the biggest gym douches arrives with his posse.  They install themselves on another bench near mine and start their sets.  This guy is roughly my age, much taller and weighs about 25kgs more than me.  He’s never done anything to me, per se, but for some reason, I’ve just never liked him.  Soon, however, I’m up to my 1RM weight and I need a spotter.  If my deadlift stinks, and it does, my bench doesn’t.  So I had a fair amount of weight on bar.  I needed somebody with a decent strength and experience to spot for me.  Normally, I’d rather have had my toe nails ripped out with pliers than ask this guy for a spot, but I knew I was going to smash a new “touch and go” PR.  Swallowing my pride, I asked your man for spot and proceeded to best my former PR by 5kg.  I then added 2.5kg on top of that and failed.  It turns out the big guy a) knows what he is talking about (very good analysis of why I failed the last lift) and b) is a pretty decent, friendly dude after all.  He encouraged me to try again but it was getting late and I began to feel guilty re: blowing off my deload phase.

So the guy I thought was the biggest tool in the gym turns out to be pretty cool.  To be honest, he does have resting douche face but, then again, so do I quite often.  And lifting straps are best thing since Netflix.  All in all, it was a gentle reminder of the value of keeping an open mind as well as getting out of your comfort zone.

That time I did a Strongman contest

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About 18 months ago I did a very, very silly thing.  I participated in a local Strongman contest on a whim.  I just signed up a week before the contest and then I participated.  “How hard could it be?”, I thought naively.  I should preface this by providing some context at this point:  I know the organizer and for some mistaken reason I was under the impression that the contestants would be mostly my fellow Powerlifting (PL) team members and maybe a few other people.  So I thought it would be fun afternoon with a bunch people I basically know.  At the time I was doing a fair amount of overhead press, Atlas ball and some weighted carries in addition to squat, bench and deadlift so I thought I had an advantage.  Well, an advantage in the sense that I did more of this than some people in my PL gym so, since I thought they would be my main competitors.  Did I bother to learn about Strongman rules, strategy or do at least minimal contest prep?  Of course I didn’t.

I should also explain that at this point in time I was a strength-building “bulking” phase which is just a cool way of saying I was eating a lot (clean, yes, but a lot) and getting, well, sort of thick around the middle.  So, yes, I was relatively strong but my cardio capacity was even worse than usual thanks to the additional weight.  Additionally,  I had badly sprained my ankle 2 weeks before the event.

Sunday morning comes around and I nonchalantly roll up to the parking lot where the contest is being held.  First thing I noticed is that event looked a bit more “serious” than I was expecting – nicely set up, TV cameras, the works.  Second thing I noticed is that there weren’t many people from my PL team in attendance.  Those that were there were helping the organizers, not competing.  OK, I thought, no big deal.  Then as the other competitors arrived I realized that they were all Crossfitters and I easily had a good 18 years on the next oldest male competitor.  The horrible realization dawned on my that I had made a very foolish and potentially embarrassing decision to compete in a sport I know next to nothing about against a bunch of young guys with the strength and cardio fitness of race horses.  However, the only thing more mortifying than actually competing would have been to chicken out, especially in front of people I know.  My goals were clear – finish the competition and, for my self-esteem, not come in dead last.

Things got real even before the competition started.  The organizers took the competitors through some warm up stretches and light cardio.  In my “fuscular” bulking state, I was winded from the light cardio, and hobbling around to boot due to my sprained ankle.  It occurred to me as the events and rules were explained that Strongman is a lot more cardio intensive than I had anticipated and that, dear reader, did not bode well for yours truly.

The first event was the yoke carry over a 100 meters which I, of course, had never practiced.  Guess what, it’s harder than it looks, much harder.  Carrying a very heavy yoke over 100 meters takes a great deal of cardio.  (Strongman in general demands more cardio conditioning than people (or maybe just me) suspect)  After my carry I discretely went over to the side of the parking lot so fewer people would see me retching into the bushes.  I was the last to do the yoke carry so of course I was first up for the next event – farmer’s carry.   I was already winded to the point of seeing stars and now I was expected to pick up two weighted frames and move them 100 meters.  Ugh, my grip strength is my greatest weakness in the best of times, but in my tired state and with a sprained ankle, it wasn’t pretty.  I was dead last, by a country mile, in that event.

Two of the crossfitters were just absolute beasts, strong as hell and in all around excellent shape.  They were literally running away with the competition.  As the competition progressed I saw that the rest of my competitors were young (20 somethings), in much better cardio shape than I was but for the most part not as strong as your average powerlifter.  I did fairly well in those events that required upper body strength and/or resemble squatting or deadlifting.  So I placed well in one event that required us to pick up a 70kg ball off the ground and throw it over our shoulders for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during one minute.  I came in second in the log press (pressing a weighted metal cylinder overhead for AMRAP during one minute) and probably would have done better if I knew how to do a push/press (i.e. utilizing your legs to help push the bar overhead).  People were screaming at me to stop doing a strict Overhead Press (which does not use the legs) but it was the only technique I knew.  Yep, a little contest prep would have gone a long way.

So I stumbled from event to event in an exhausted, hypoglycemic, trying not to retch daze.  Then, almost magically, the competition was over!  I had managed to get points in all of the events (not a given – some people, for example, couldn’t do even 1 rep of the log press and therefore got no points for that event).  Lo and behold, I managed to not place dead last.  OK, I was 6th from the bottom but on the other hand, I was old enough to be everyone’s father.  Aside the public humiliation that was my farmers carry attempt, I didn’t completely disgrace myself.

As I hobbled back to my car, every muscle and sinew in body was crying out in pain.  Uh-oh, I thought, this going to be even more sore tomorrow.  And indeed tomorrow was not kind.  I staggered into work and grimaced in pain every time I did radical things like get out of a chair or walk down a few stairs.  I am a manager in a conservative bank, where the sport of choice for people like me would be golf, tennis or running.  I am always the weirdo nursing some sort of injury like torn-up hands (due to deadlifting) but for the most part these injuries fly under the radar.  Impossible to remain un-noticed with the DOMS I was feeling from that competition.  I have never felt that physically trashed after a sporting event.  So big, big respect to all you strongman and strongwoman competitors out there.  You’re crazed masochists, the lot of you.

As I reviewed the video from the event I also came to the realization that there is a fine line between bulking for strength and looking like you’re wearing one of the tires you’re supposed to be flipping.  I also realized, in rather dramatic fashion, that I had an appalling lack of cardio conditioning.  I learned some honest to goodness respect for crossfitters.  It’s fashionable in some circles to talk trash about crossfitters because they are the jacks of all trades but masters of none.  You know what, if taught well and practiced with strict form, crossfit turns people into beasts.  If I was 20 years younger, I might be tempted to search out a really top-notch crossfit box.  Any sport that gets masses of people excited about compound barbell movements is all right by me..And, finally, it was fun to push the envelope a bit.  Wish I had done some contest prep and actual training for the events, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

The unexpected consequences of lifting.

What motivates people to train in the strength sports?  Ask 100 different lifters why they lift and you will no doubt get a 100 different answers that are just variations of the same theme.  The common thread running through their answers would be that it’s that it’s just flat out fun being strong.  Being stronger than you ever imagined you’d be is a hoot.

Everyone is familiar with runners’ high and “getting a pump” as just 2 examples of an immediate positive consequence or feedback from physical activity.   Whether you’re a  natural powerlifter, strong man competitor or Olympic lifter, one of the best things about lifting is working towards a well-defined goal and achieving it.  For strength athletes, the broad goal is to get stronger in your competition lifts. You do this by working your ass off, yes, but also by careful training and nutritional programming so that you are at your peak on the day of the competition.  Thus we get an even more potent high; the elation of hitting a PR as result of weeks or months of hard training or the “contact high” of seeing a training buddy hit theirs.  These are highs that can last for days.

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What, though, are the unintended consequences of lifting?  These are those things that happen as a result of your training but aren’t the reason you train and/or are something you would have anticipated.   Below are some of my personal unintended consequences – I’d like to this post to be more of a  forum thread and would love to hear about your “top” unanticipated consequences in the comments section below.

  • Diet and nutrition  –  Once I hit middle-age, became serious about strength training and decided  I was not going to take any Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), I  developed a healthy (yes, there will be puns) interest in achieving optimal performance via nutrition.  While none of this interested me before I now know why GMOs are bad, the value of organically raised produce, why processed “food” is so unhealthy and a number of other subjects that I once thought was the sole preserve of the patchouli-scented self-righteous.  This is probably the subject for another post, but suffice to say when you drive a Ferrari to the gas station, you don’t put diesel into it.  So why would you ingest something your body is not designed to handle?  Taken in a wider context, why would you poison an ecosystem in the same manner?
  • Quieting the monkey mind – Yes, meditation.  Once I started down the slippery slope of optimal performance via natural methods, I heard mediation referred to many times by too many disparate sources to ignore it any longer.  I’m still very much in the beginner stage of meditation and mindfulness training.   Considering how much of a difference it makes already,  I think it might be analogous to the “beginner gains” phenomenon that all weightlifters have experienced.
  • Negative reactions – I have never engaged in a sport that has garnered this much negative feedback – and that includes boxing, kickboxing, “point” sparring in Karate tournaments and running marathons.  Much of this sort of reaction is out of genuine albeit uninformed concern, as in “Me:  “Hey, I had a 190KG squat PR the other day!”  Concerned family member:  “You know, you could really hurt yourself”.  Really?  You don’t run a marathon without putting in some serious training nor do you put 190KG on your back and squat it on a whim.  To further the marathon analogy, when you run that marathon you’re going to be suffering the effects for days after.  You hit a squat PR, you’re just going to have a PR “high” for days after.  Another type of negative feedback is a lingering but common place feeling that people who engage in strength sports are illiterate knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.  People who don’t know you often make snap judgements which hopefully they are disabused of once they make your acquaintance.   And, finally, I’ve had more than a few female friends/past girlfriends/ex-wife as well as a few male acquaintances be kind enough to share their opinions of one of my favorite past-times, or at least its physical manifestation.  The script always as follows,  ” You know, this weight training thing, don’t you thing you want to tone it down a bit?  The muscle-bound look isn’t great and, honestly, women don’t find it attractive”  That’s fair, people are entitled to their opinions but what I find so interesting in this case is why these people are so eager to share this particular opinion when they wouldn’t do it to a fat person, a skinny person, a really gaunt but athletic type (think triathlon, etc) or pretty any other body type.  My thinking on the subject is as follows:  I’m (quite obviously) not a bodybuilder.  My physical appearance is just the byproduct of what I do and I’m aware that a person with an above-average amount of muscle combined with an average percentage of body fat will look much bulkier than a skinny-fat dude (less muscle, higher body fat percentage).  However, I do this activity because I like it makes me feel so how it makes me look is  of secondary or even tertiary importance. As far as women are concerned, no doubt some if not many find this look not to their liking.  However, one of the benefits of living 50 years is that I have realized that pretty much all women dislike a man who has no passion and only does whatever he thinks will please them in a given moment.  So I do what I do because it makes me happy.  To quote from Slaughterhouse 5 (yes, I could say “Kurt Vonnegut’s” but I like to think that would superfluous for any reader of this blog) “So it goes”.
  • Sex:  Don’t worry, I will not, repeat, will not go into detail.  Suffice it to say this, strength training will certainly not interfere with one’s sex drive. In most cases (embarrassed cough) it will  help things.  For one, all that exercise and attention to proper nutrition means that, hormonally speaking, you’re firing on all cylinders.  And being able to “pick things up and put them down”  can be kind of fun in the bedroom.  Also, and in spite of the negative feedback I’ve described above, I’ve found that some women do quite like the look.  It is a double-edged sword, I’m aware, to have somebody interested in you for purely physical reasons or whatever they think you represent, but that is the subject for another post.  Interestingly, I’ve often found that I’ve garnered the most interest  from women in the “entourage” of the same people who freely offered me their opinion.  (let me be clear, I’m divorced and currently not seeing anybody lest anyone think I’m a cad).
  • Happiness/Contentment:  Sustained physical activity done with focus and intent is or should be an integral part of everyone’s life.  A sound body does indeed help to foster a sound mind.  To be honest, if my schedule allowed for it, my main activity would once again be some sort of martial art, but my living situation, work schedule, etc precludes a long-term commitment to be consistently in the same place at the same time week after week.  With powerlifting all I need is access to good gyms and  to occasionally check in with my coach and my home “club”.  The feeling of physical well-being after a heavy squat session is, for me, almost indescribable.  (high praise for squats, to be honest, as I’m well above average in bench press, OK at squats and have a “poverty” deadlift”.)  Endorphins, stress reduction and the, as I mentioned earlier, the flat out fun of being strong are a potent combination.

What are your top “unintended consequences”?